How You Can Still Celebrate Mardi Gras in 2021

Short answer: very carefully.

Want a pandemic update to Professor Longhair’s seminal Carnival song? It’s easy. Just add “don’t” or “won’t” to every line. For example, “don’t go to the Mardi Gras.” “You won’t see the Zulu king.” That’s because none of the events, parades, and parties that make Mardi Gras the annual beautiful New Orleans tradition that it is will be happening this year. Bourbon Street and other gathering places will be barricaded and heavily policed in the five days leading up to Fat Tuesday. All parades, second lines, and balls are canceled. Bars will be shuttered. And city officials warn that anyone who flouts these rules will be “directly responsible for the deaths of New Orleanians.”

It’s a sobering proclamation, especially for a city that is used to drinking with abandon. Last year’s Carnival celebration, which occurred weeks before New Orleans saw its first case, contributed to an early COVID-19 peak in New Orleans. A month after Fat Tuesday 2020, COVID-19 was spreading faster in Louisiana than anywhere else in the world. A CDC report blamed the Carnival celebration, which packed more than 1 million people onto New Orleans’ narrow, potholed streets.

Bottom line: If you don’t live in New Orleans, don’t come during Mardi Gras. Yes, that really, really sucks, but so does everything about the pandemic. Although wars and police strikes have canceled Mardi Gras in years past, they didn’t completely snuff out every event or involve French Quarter barricades. Mardi Gras wasn’t even canceled after Hurricane Katrina! That’s because Carnival, which literally means “farewell to the flesh,” is as much a raucous street party as it is a memento mori, a reminder of life’s fleeting nature and an invitation to celebrate while we process grief. 

This year, Carnival looks very different, but New Orleanians are still finding safe, intimate ways to observe the religious holiday. Here are a few ways to join in—and most of them can be experienced from home.

Wait, when exactly is Mardi Gras?

Mardi Gras takes place on Tuesday, February 16 this year. The date changes each year, but here’s a rule of thumb: Easter always takes place on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox, and Mardi Gras happens 41 days before Easter. It can be as early as February 3 or as late as March 9, depending on when Easter falls. Simple, right? Ha, just kidding.

The lunar calendar and its interactions with the ecclesiastical calendar are complex, to say the least, so all you really need to remember is that Mardi Gras takes place on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday kicks off 40 days of pious abnegation among New Orleans’ historically Catholic population.

New Orleans, LA
Suzanne C. Grim/Shutterstock

Check out the house floats

What are locals doing with the creative energy they’d normally use to learn parade route dance routines, throw bals masques, and make custom throws? They’re decorating objects whose size is commensurate with that talent—houses. Krewe of House Floats founder Megan Boudreaux sparked the idea in November. “When the mayor announced parade cancellations, I made an offhand comment on Twitter that I’ll decorate my house and throw things at my neighbors,” Boudreaux said. “Everyone has 200 pounds of beads in their attic.” The concept took over social media. Now, Boudreaux’s Krewe of House floats boasts more than 3,000 members and 1,000 house floats worldwide. A map of the house floats is available online, and plenty of other rogue floats are unlisted. Walk around (while distancing and wearing a mask!) and admire the artistry of under-employed float artists and crafty New Orleanians. You could probably also catch a few house floats during GetUpNRide’s socially distant group bike ride, which takes place on Mardi Gras day.

King Cake Hub
King Cake Hub

Eat a king cake

In a city of culinary delights, king cake is…well, king. Baked from cinnamon-laced dough with a small plastic baby inside, the ring-shaped cake is both a delicacy and a tradition. Whoever gets the slice with the baby inside is responsible for buying the next king cake, which means New Orleanians eat a lot of sugar during Carnival time. But all good things must come to an end, and it’s gauche to eat king cake out of season (no matter how much you crave it). Most bakeries don’t even stock king cake before January 6 or after Fat Tuesday, and locals will give you the side-eye if you eat it before or after these dates. Bakeries including Gambino’s, Haydel’s  and Bywater Bakery will ship king cakes anywhere in the country. Or locals can check out the King Cake hub at the Broad Theater (636 N. Broad Street), which features more than 60 kinds of king cakes from bakeries across Louisiana.

Jfharmon/Shutterstock

Dress yourself, your pet, and your house in Mardi Gras colors

It’s a great way to show your support for Carnival during its most challenging year. If you don’t already know what the colors are, just look at the sugar topping traditional king cakes and you’ll see the hallowed Mardi Gras colors: purple, green, and gold. Purple symbolizes justice, gold symbolizes power, and green symbolizes faith, as designated by the 1892 Rex parade. Legend also says the Louisiana State University Tigers got their school colors (purple and gold) because ribbons in those colors were readily available during Carnival season.

Suzanne C. Grim/Shutterstock

Or make a more elaborate costume

Costumes are one of the cornerstones of Carnival, and luckily, staying home to craft yours is one of the safest things you can do during COVID-19 times. After it’s reached its full potential (or your fingers are hopelessly singed from the glue gun, whichever comes first), put it on and post a selfie. Don your mask, day drink, check out house floats with your pod, and toast yourself on the day we say farewell to the flesh. You’ve made it this far in a yearlong pandemic that has taken away so many of our loved ones, traditions, and comforts—and you’re part of an unprecedented moment in New Orleans history. 

NOLA.com
NOLA.com

“Attend” a virtual event

If you aren’t live-streamed out yet, there are plenty of Carnival events to watch in between Zoom meetings. On February 12, The Royal Sonesta Hotel (300 Bourbon Street) will live stream its annual Greasing of the Poles. During this event, the hotel’s support poles get thoroughly lubricated to prevent drunken revelers from climbing them to access its balcony. This year, the greasing is a largely symbolic gesture, as Bourbon Street will be closed.

Krewe of Bacchus launched “Throw Me Something, Bacchus,” a virtual parade app that features throws, floats, throw trading features and games. In response, the Virtual Krewe of Vaporwave, New Orleans’ first virtual krewe (which launched in 2016 in an oddly prescient move), will drive down Bacchus’ Uptown parade route on Sunday, February 14, at 6 pm with CRT televisions strapped to the tops of their cars. 

Nola.com will live stream “Mardi Gras for All Y’all” during the three nights leading up to Fat Tuesday. The virtual event’s more than 90 acts feature chef demonstrations, live performances, interviews, and lots of house floats. Live Streaming platform StageIt will broadcast New Orleans bands, including The Iceman Special, Soul Brass Band, Dinola + Malevitus, and The New Orleans Klezmer All Stars, February 10-16.

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Missy Wilkinson is coping with COVID Carnival by eating copious amounts of king cake. Follow her on Instagram at @nowlistenmissy.